Perceptions Of Who Is Deserving, Disenfranchised Reshaped Wisconsin Politics

University Place: Research Anticipated Broader Discussion About Rural-Urban Divide
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Illustration by Scott Gordon and Kristian Knutsen; Flag of Wisconsin (1866-1913) via Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

Political discontent in rural areas of the U.S. is regularly cited as a major factor in Donald Trump's victory and Congressional and statehouse gains by other Republican candidates in the 2016 elections.

Kathy Cramer, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and director of the Morgridge Center for Public Service, gained national fame following the election for her book The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker, published in March 2016 in the midst of the presidential primary season. The book chronicled her research into the political perspectives of Wisconsinites living in rural areas over the past decade, particularly with regards to partisan divides over the role of government.

During a Mar. 2, 2016 talk for the Wednesday Nite @ the Lab lecture series on the UW-Madison campus, recorded for Wisconsin Public Television's University Place, Cramer discussed how Governor Scott Walker tuned in to and harnessed a sense of disenfranchisement and disconnection around Wisconsin over three campaigns. She likewise considered the impact of this type of discontent on the presidential election.

"Donald Trump is another person who's been pretty adept at tapping into [the politics of resentment]," Cramer said. "I actually don't think it's a mystery, given what I heard around the state." (In one post-election interview, Cramer said she wasn't as surprised by the outcome as other observers might have been.)

In her research among Wisconsinites, Cramer said she found most residents of the state, rural and urban, feel unrepresented by both major political parties. Concerns about jobs and other economic issues were a frequent topic in her interviews, which she conducted between 2007 and 2012.

She learned about how the growth of income inequality in the U.S. over recent decades, and attitudes about the nature of hard work, have contributed to perceptions among rural residents about tax levels and the distribution of state and federal spending.

"It's complicated because it's both resentment towards cities and city people," said Cramer. "But it's also resentment toward public employees, it's resentment toward people of color, and it's all in this context, where we see it day after day — my goodness, especially in the presidential campaign — this attitude of they don't deserve what they're getting, and I'm not getting what I should be."

Key Facts

  • Cramer surveyed 39 groups of people in 27 Wisconsin communities between May 2007 and November 2012. She originally planned to conclude her study in 2010, but that autumn's wave of Republican victories in state and Congressional races prompted her to extend her work. She interviewed people in local group settings, including at diners, gas stations and churches.

  • In her research, Cramer analyzed Wisconsin's 72 counties in three population density designations. Rural counties were defined as having populations of fewer than 10,000 residents. Counties with between 10,000 and 50,000 people were termed "micropolitan," and those with more than 50,000 people were labeled metropolitan.

  • Income inequality in the United States has risen considerably since the 1970s. This growing division is largely because earnings among the people in the top group of income earners has gone up, while the incomes of the majority of Americans has remained the same.

  • Research conducted at Vanderbilt University of U.S. Senators in the late 1980s and early 1990s found members from both major political parties tend to vote in closest correspondence to the viewpoints of constituents in the highest third of income level, while their votes have almost no correspondence with the lowest third of earners.

  • Residents of rural counties pay slightly less in tax per capita than their micropolitan and metropolitan counterparts, but face higher rates of unemployment and poverty.

Key Quotes

  • On research into growing income inequality: "Income inequality is a fact, or is as close to a fact as social science gets. We have this. And we also have, at the same time… evidence that our governments are not necessarily responding to the wishes of many of us."

  • On research into constituent income levels and U.S. Senate voting patterns: "With respect to both Democrats and Republicans, the correspondence between the way national-level legislators ... vote and the wishes of their constituents have the strongest correspondence among people who are wealthiest."

  • On the perception of public employees in rural areas: "Even though there's a substantial portion of the workforce in any community in the state that's employed by a government... roughly 10 percent of folks there are employed by local, county, state, or federal government, there's a perception that even if those folks have lived in that community a long, long time, decades, they're not really from there. They're not driven by decisions that are made in this place, they're driven by decisions that are made downstate, in Madison."

  • On a racial component to rural resentment: "This isn't just about race, and also it is about race, and that's partly why our racial tension and our racial injustice is so difficult and so complex, because there are many parts to it. Even when we don't talk about race, we're talking about who's deserving, we're talking about who has power, and it's all built on a long legacy in which we have often criticized expanding government by pointing to who is not deserving, and certain components of the population."

  • On perceptions of rural tax disparity: "If we look at how much people are paying in compared to what they're getting back. If anything, if you're a person living in a rural county, you're actually getting a little bit more than your so-called fair share… it's not about the facts. It's about the perception."

  • On Scott Walker and rural consciousness: "Wisconsin, I don't need to remind you, has kind of been ground zero for debates about the appropriate role of government in recent years. Scott Walker is a person who, whether consciously or unconsciously, knew how to tap into this rural consciousness."

  • On urban perceptions of representation: "There's some pretty serious need in out-state Wisconsin, as in other places, granted. But I wonder, could something be different? I've talked mainly about perceptions from out-state Wisconsin. It's absolutely the case that many folks in cities in our state, Madison and Milwaukee, also perceive the government's not responsive to their needs. I think there is some need for our legislators to understand people from other parts of the state, more than they do currently. I think the current context of partisan embattlement prevents a lot of that, but we certainly need more of it."

  • On voter motivations: "I think it's in our interest to ask if it's not partisanship that's driving who people vote for, what else is going on? And I found time and time again that this question of who is deserving, who works hard, was much more important for the way people were making sense of politics, whether it was state or national politics."
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